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Jazz was at the apex of its artistic power and commercial popularity when, in 1959, some of the music’s greatest innovators gathered to record in New York City. In this excerpt from the new book 3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool (Penguin Press, March 5, 2024), author James Kaplan puts us in the room as Davis and his collaborators record “So What,” the track that leads off what is often hailed as the greatest jazz album ever.

MARCH 2, 1959—a late-winter Monday in the second-to-last year of the Eisenhower administration. Fair and mild in Manhattan. Among the top stories in The New York Times that morning: a fogbound collision between the American Export liner Constitution and an oil tanker; the “commuter crisis” caused by ever-rising automobile use in the metropolitan area; tensions between white colonials and Black natives in East Africa. This last article quotes a British banker alleging “the vast unreadiness of the great majority of Africans for self-government.”

An older, staider world. On the first page of the second section, a story by the young reporter Gay Talese about “Crazy Couple Clubs”—groups of jaded suburbanites seeking unusual amusements in the city: visits to yoga clubs, night court, Bowery restaurants. And deeper into the section, on what was still called the Theatres page, a review (glowing) by the paper’s jazz critic, John S. Wilson, of a Thelonious Monk concert at Town Hall. “He has carried apparent uncertainty to a high and refined art,” Wilson wrote. “He makes each performance a fresh and provocative experience.”

If the Crazy Couple Club of Manhasset—by the evidence of the photograph in the Times piece a prosperous and cheerfully self-satisfied group—had dared to extend their Bowery slumming beyond ethnic restaurants, they might have wandered into the cozy, smoky, messy confines of the Five Spot Café, at 5 Cooper Square, whose owners, two Italian American brothers and ex-GIs named Joe and Iggy Termini, had for the past three years been booking some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day, including Cecil Taylor, Cannonball Adderley, and, most notably, Thelonious Monk, whom the Terminis had helped regain his New York City cabaret card—a conditional ID issued by the police department as a (legally and practically questionable) method of discouraging narcotics use—six years after Monk had lost his card, and with it the right to play in clubs that served alcohol, in a mistaken 1951 drug bust.

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Miles Davis at 30th Street Studio in New York City circa 1959.

Amid the tobacco and reefer fumes and beer reek of that tiny, dark saloon (a glass of gin cost fifty cents; a pitcher of beer, a dollar), the members of the Crazy Couple Club of Manhasset might have found themselves sitting shoulder to shoulder with (though they almost certainly would have failed to recognize) such Five Spot habitués as the painters Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Mark Rothko; the writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Frank O’Hara; and the young jazz titans Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans.

The Five Spot was closed on Mondays, but on that March Monday Davis, Coltrane, and Evans had other business anyway: in Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio, they were joining the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb to begin making, under Miles’s leadership, what would become the bestselling, and arguably most beloved, jazz album of all time, Miles’s Kind of Blue. March 2 and April 22: three tunes recorded on the first date (“So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” and “Blue in Green”), two on the second (“All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches”). Every complete take but one (“Flamenco Sketches”) was a first take, the process similar, as Evans later wrote in the LP’s liner notes, to a genre of Japanese visual art in which black watercolor is applied spontaneously to a thin stretched parchment, with no unnatural or interrupted strokes possible, Miles’s cherished ideal of spontaneity achieved.

The quiet and enigmatic majesty of the resulting record both epitomizes jazz and transcends the genre. The album’s powerful and enduring mystique has made it widely beloved among musicians and music lovers of every category: jazz, rock, classical, rap. This is the story of the three geniuses who joined forces to create one of the great classics in Western music—how they rose up in the world, came together like a chance collision of particles in deep space, produced a brilliant flash of light, and then went on their separate ways to jazz immortality.

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Bill Evans at the piano during a performance filmed for the BBC in London in March 1965.

NO musician ever goes into a record date expecting to make history; every man in Miles’s band had recorded dozens of times before. “Professionals,” Bill Evans said, “have to go in at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday and make a record and hope to catch a really good day.” On the face of it, there was nothing remarkable about Project B 43079.

The control booth at 30th Street was up a flight of stairs from the studio floor, in what had once been the balcony of the old church: producer Irving Townsend, recording engineer Fred Plaut, and Plaut’s assistant Bob Waller looked down from above as Miles talked to the musicians, who were placed around the open floor much as they’d stand onstage in a concert. On some recording sessions, Columbia producers used rolling baffles to isolate musicians or singers and eliminate sound leakage; at Davis’s direction, this session would proceed baffle-free, all musicians constantly aware of, and inspired by, each other’s playing. Sound leakage from one player’s mike to another’s was not only expected but essential. Each man had his own Telefunken U-49 microphone, except for Cobb, who had two, one pointed at the snare and one overhead to pick up the cymbals.

The state of studio recording in 1959 was such that the musicians rather than the engineer were responsible for regulating the loudness or softness of their instruments, by dynamics or distance from the mike. As Davis picked up his horn, Waller started the tapes rolling—one master and one safety—on the Ampex reel-to-reel recorders, and Townsend pushed the intercom button.

“Miles, where are you gonna work now?” he asked. The producer was referring to Davis’s position in relation to the microphone, from which he had apparently stepped back momentarily.

“Right here,” Miles said.

“When I play it I’m gonna raise my horn a little bit,” Miles said. His customary playing stance, onstage or in the recording studio, was to point his trumpet straight at the floor as he played, a position that communicated contemplation and moodiness, though it was primarily a way of regulating his tone. “Can I move this down a little bit?” He indicated the mike.

“It’s against policy to move a microphone,” Townsend said, deadpan. The old church echoed with laughter.

OUTSIDE the 30th Street Studio, Manhattan was Manhattaning: rounded buses and big yellow cabs grinding up and down the avenues; car horns and scraps of radio music and pedestrians’ voices echoing in the deep-shadowed side streets. Outside, the everyday clamor and clash of a city afternoon in late-winter 1959; inside, the densest quiet as a passage outside of time proceeded: the recording of CO 62291, the number that would come to be titled “So What,” leading off the album soon to be known as Kind of Blue.

The first take began. There was a false start of four seconds, followed by an incomplete take of forty-nine seconds. Townsend interrupted from the booth: something was interfering with the song’s profound hush. “Hold it,” the producer said. “Sorry—listen, we gotta watch it because, ah, there’s noises all the way through this. This is so quiet to begin with, and every click—watch the snare too, we’re picking up some of the vibrations on it—”

Miles, ever on the lookout for meaningful accidentals, demurred. “Well, that goes with it,” he said. “All that goes with it.”

“All right,” Townsend allowed. “Not all the other noises, though . . .”

Another false start, seventeen seconds. An incomplete take, a minute eleven. A telephone rang in the control booth. Once quiet was restored, three more false starts, of sixteen, seven, and fifteen seconds.

Then, history.

The full Take 3 was nine minutes and thirty-five seconds of musical transcendence.

Someone—some say it was Gil Evans; Bill Evans’s biographer Peter Pettinger and the trumpeter Wallace Roney asserted it was Bill Evans—had sketched out a single-line introduction to the piece, a hushed dialogue between piano and bass, proceeding at its own dreamy pace and built on meditative, European art song–esque chords (the fourth, with two white piano keys between the lower and upper notes, being an interval which, enigmatically, presents as neither major nor minor), then on skipping single notes played in unison by the two instruments. Paul Chambers then set the rhythm, plucking the eight-note figure that was to become immortal, the call that began the rhythmic call-and-response of “So What.” Evans then answered, followed by the rest of the sextet.

“The piano’s (and then the band’s) answering ‘amen’ (or ‘so what’) riffs,” Pettinger writes, “were built up largely in fourths, as opposed to the thirds that are basic to the tonal system, as exemplified by Bobby Timmons’s comparable composition ‘Moanin’,’ recorded by him some four months earlier.”

Timmons, the pianist for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, was all of twenty-two when he wrote “Moanin’,” a call-and-response number which, unlike Miles’s, had a strong, foursquare gospel feeling. Call-and-response was an ancient form, with roots in African ritual, civics, and music; it traveled to America and underlay African American work songs and religious rituals from 1619 on. Timmons’s song, like Blakey’s quintet and Horace Silver’s compositions and bands, was hugely influential in pointing jazz in a more soulful direction. Miles would have known the tune well—would he have enjoyed its old-fashioned wholeheartedness? been impatient with it? It didn’t matter: He was proceeding on his own musical path, channeling strong emotions through the prisms and filters of his biting intelligence and contrary spirit. Some people called this Cool; under the surface it was anything but.

The full Take 3 was nine minutes and thirty-five seconds of musical transcendence. Miles’s solo, an impromptu composition in itself, would gain its own immortality: generations of musicians would memorize it note for note. Miles is talking to you in that solo, playing in the middle sonic range of the human voice, and he’s got all kinds of things to say, in brief and at length. He starts and stops; he starts again and goes on. And we’re freshly astonished at how very much he can express, in so few notes, in the moment.

The richness each of the soloists was able to create improvising over just two chords, D and E♭ Dorian, vindicates Miles’s modal concept. Coltrane was in exploratory rather than loud and fast form, traveling up and down each scale to find astringent delights. Cannonball was no less seeking, but lush toned as always, and unable not to find melodies and tuneful fillips, even in this minimalist frame. And Evans’s solo was perhaps most in sync with the tune’s hushed simplicity: playing quiet arpeggios and complex chords a little shyly at first, but then growing more assertive—and surprising: “I’m thinking of the end of Bill’s solo on ‘So What,’” Herbie Hancock told the writer Ashley Kahn. “He plays these phrases, a second apart. He plays seconds.” Still filled with wonderment forty years after the fact, Hancock was talking about an interval on the piano that’s barely an interval—two adjacent keys played simultaneously. By itself, the sound is dissonant; in this context it’s startlingly expressive. “I had never heard anybody do that before,” Hancock said. “He’s following the modal concept maybe more than anybody else. That just opened up a whole vista for me.”

CO 62291 wasn’t yet officially named on the day it was recorded, but in the years after Kind of Blue’s release, more than one person would take credit for its title: John Szwed writes that it “may have been suggested to [Davis] by Beverly Bentley [a girlfriend of Miles’s, later Norman Mailer’s fourth wife], who said it sounded like his favorite dismissive remark, but folks in East St. Louis were more likely to believe that it came from Miles’s brother-in-law’s retort when Miles told him in 1944 that he was leaving for New York: ‘So what?’” And the actor Dennis Hopper, who said he was a close friend of Davis’s, recalled that the phrase was a comeback he, Hopper, used to deploy, jab-like, when Miles ran his mouth while the two of them sparred together: “Oh come on, Miles, so what?”

“So one time I came into the [jazz] club,” Hopper remembered, “and he said, ‘I wrote a little song for you’—and he played ‘So What.’”

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John Coltrane playing tenor saxophone during a recording session in New York in the early 1960s.

THE WORD “timeless” has become a cliché, a selling tool for luxury goods. And yet Kind of Blue is a timeless album, and “So What” arguably its signature number. What is this about? For sixty years and more, jazz and popular music had consisted of songs that told stories, either explicitly—in lyrics—or in their construction. The most common song framework in both genres was known as AABA: two choruses followed by a bridge (aka channel, release, or middle eight), followed by an out-chorus. (Popular songs of the first half of the twentieth century also typically began with a verse: a brief, explanatory introduction that might or might not be included in performance or on recordings.) The sound of tunes made this way was a satisfying blend of exposition and resolution.

Popular songs, which often became the explicit or implicit basis for jazz tunes, were written in a given key, and while they might wander chordally—see Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” or the bridge of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones?”—they tended, satisfyingly, to come back home to that first chord. This was even truer of the blues, with its intrinsic I-IV-V format, a structure that was restrictive but deeply pleasing. A story was told, and you learned the outcome, even if it was sad. (See: “Moanin’.”) You knew how it turned out—maybe you knew before the song started—but hearing about it could make you forget your troubles for a while or identify with the singer’s or the musician’s troubles.

But with Miles, in life and in art, it was always the thing withheld. And the essence of modal music—the essence of “So What”—was that you had no idea how it turned out, or if it turned out. Which was pretty much the way the world was looking at that moment, and maybe the way (you had to think) it was going to look from then on.

It was 1959; the world jostled and rocked. American automobiles sprouted double headlights and fins. Batista fled Havana; Castro entered. Khrushchev met Mao, visited Disneyland, debated Nixon in a model kitchen at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union; the flag gained two stars. The crashes of commercial airliners were a depressingly regular event. The music died in Clear Lake, Iowa; the Clutters died in Holcomb, Kansas. Johnny and the Moondogs, a British guitar trio led by the eighteen-year-old art student John Lennon (his bandmates were the seventeen-year-old Paul McCartney and sixteen-year-old George Harrison), played gigs around Liverpool whenever they could find a drummer. Rocky and Bullwinkle and Bonanza—in color—debuted. As did the Xerox machine. As did the Barbie doll. NASA named the seven original astronauts, and the Space Age began. Gypsy and The Sound of Music and A Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway. The Boeing 707 and the ICBM were introduced: travelers could now fly to far-off destinations at unprecedented speeds, as could nuclear bombs.

So what.

From 3 SHADES OF BLUE: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool by James Kaplan, to be published on March 5, 2024, by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by James Kaplan.

This story originally appeared on Esquire US.


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